Friday, January 13, 2006

The Sweet Satisfaction of Food Shopping

Today I met my friend Ellen for lunch downtown, at a little bookshop/cafe called Clayton & Company Fine Books (we go there for the atmosphere: the food's just about the definition of mediocre, but the space is fantastic). Knowing that I'd be heading downtown today, I decided to make a big trip of it (all 10 miles of driving), and go to Cross Street Market after lunch. I'd justify the trip by making oyster stew for dinner tonight.

Lunch was a bagel and chai - as I said, really nothing special, though it was nice to catch up with Ellen. After lunch, though, was quite a treat.

Cross Street is in Federal Hill, an historic neighborhood in the southern part of Baltimore city. It's full of cute shops and restaurants and old buildings with architecture that can only be described as charming:

fed hill 1
Originally uploaded by Kit Pollard.

Side streets are cobblestone, houses are lovingly preserved, and there's a great park in the middle of the neighborhood. Really, the area's bright spots are enough to give Baltimore a good name:

fed hill 2
Originally uploaded by Kit Pollard.

Federal Hill is also a prime example of one of the reasons why I think Baltimore's a great city. Even the most gentrified neighborhoods (and Federal Hill is nothing if not gentrified - narrow row houses there regulary cost upwards of half a million dollars) retain some of the working class character of the city. New and trendy restaurants sit next door to groceries that have been in business for over half a century. Investment bankers are neighborly with Baltimore Hons living in the houses they grew up in. There's something reassuring about that. It's nice to know that the city won't ever change...that much.

Cross Street Market is a Baltimore institution in and of itself. Open and operating since 1846, the market sits in the square between Federal Hill's main drags, Charles and Light Streets and, appropriately enough, East and West Cross Streets. Parking is a little annoying, but there's a garage a few blocks away on West Street, and the walk is nice enough.

Entering Cross Street from Charles Street, I was immediately greeted by a throng of people eating (and drinking) their lunches:

cross street 3
Originally uploaded by Kit Pollard.

The seafood is good here, and if beer only comes in plastic cups, trust me, nobody minds. On Friday afternoons, especially during the winter, this end of the market is a great place for happy hour. That is, if you like your happy hours packed with young financial types, soggy with cheap beer and accompanied by raw oysters. Everybody who goes smells a little fishy come 7 pm, but agrees that the experience is a quintessentially Baltimore one.

Today, however, I wasn't in the market for Miller Lite. I was on a quest for oysters. But first, I walked my way up and down the market, just because I like to look at produce and flowers - and this market has a lot of flowers:

cross street 1
Originally uploaded by Kit Pollard.

As a side note, Baltimore residents are usually really nice people. Just after I took the picture above, the lady who was walking towards me (pictured) stopped me, smiling, and said, "I hope you got me in that picture." She seemed so genuinely happy...and sort of sassy. She totally made me smile, too.

A minute later, I found my oyster source, a stall with a wide variety of super fresh, beautiful seafood, and a friendly family behind the counter:

cross street 2
Originally uploaded by Kit Pollard.

Goods in hand, I could've walked right out of the market. Instead, I browsed for just a few more minutes, taking in the crazy variety of stalls. It's not everyday I see produce next to seafood next to a cell phone, pager and hair dryer store. Not even joking. But they all seemed to do a booming business, which can only be good news.

Oysters in hand and window shopping urges sated, I packed myself back into the car and started home. That's when I remembered I still needed cream and celery salt and a few other items for my big oyster stew experiment. Not willing to ruin the day's shopping high with a side trip to our ugly and crowded and disorganized Giant, I decided to splurge, and off to Whole Foods I went.

It was on my way home, I rationalized, plus, how nice would it be to support their corporate decision to use 100% wind power? Very nice. Nearly $30 later, I escaped with everything I needed (which, OK, would've cost maybe $15 at Giant), plus a lovely goat cheese and leek quiche that we'll have for lunch tomorrow. I have no willpower. But when faced with vibrant colors and clean wood floors and artisinal cheese and a friendly staff, it's all I can do not to pass out from sheer exhilaration. I considered myself lucky to have bought only one item not on my list.

And thus, my big shopping day came to an end. Tomorrow: the oyster stew experiment that triggered it all.

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